Language is our primary means of communication. Language flows from human experience and, ideally, our language accurately reflects our experience and thoughts. We go through something and then we search our vocabulary to find suitable words to describe that event.
One problem with this natural process is that we inherit language regarding our experience. Fortunately, we don’t start from scratch when we try to describe what happens to us. We borrow the language from people who have had the experience before us. We use their language to describe our experience. This process is inevitable and very valuable.
A difficulty emerges, however, when we experience something that our inherited language doesn’t accurately or completely express. We then try to force our experience into this accepted language. Sometimes the language does not accurately reflect the experience which is one reason why our language adds new words each year and deletes other words that no longer apply. Language lives and grows because human experience transcends the words we use to describe that event.
The suicide of a loved one is a case in point, and our language about suicide is something that all of us might review. The most common way we refer to suicide is to say or write that “_______ committed suicide.” Commit is a very harsh verb; we commit a crime or commit a sin. That same accusatory connotation carries over when we apply it to suicide. As a result, our most common phrase about suicide pre-judges the person as guilty. We automatically disregard the overwhelming psychological pain a person who dies by suicide experiences, and we at least imply that the person deserves some form of punishment. The message is that they committed a crime and/or a sin and, even though they may not have been thinking right at the time of death, they retain some significant guilt.
It is time to erase the phrase “committed suicide’ from our thinking and vocabulary. A more exact and sensitive way to say it is that “______died by suicide” or “died from mental illness”, or “_______ completed suicide”. This is not just a matter of being politically correct in our speech. It is a matter of speaking accurately about the experience of suicide and erasing some of the stigma attached to suicide.
But “committed suicide” is so deeply ingrained in our society that it is hard to eliminate it. Some hints on how to erase the phrase from our language might be helpful:
- It is hard to change this language habit alone. Make a pact with your family and friends to gently remind each other when anyone uses the term. Awareness that we are using the phrase is the first step toward eliminating it.
- Make a decision that you will always say “died by suicide” or an equivalent. Then take five minutes to reinforce that decision in your mind.
- When you are alone and perhaps looking into a mirror, practice saying “died by suicide”. It is difficult for many people to even say the word “suicide”, especially those people who are grieving the suicide of a loved one. Listen to yourself saying “died by suicide” until you are comfortable with the phrasing.
- Check e-mails and letters before you send them to make sure your language is appropriate.
- If you are able, when you see the phrase “committed suicide” in print or hear it on the radio or TV, write or call the media outlet to inform them that that phrasing is inappropriate.
If we all drop “committed suicide” from our language, we can make a subtle but significant impact on society and help reduce the stigma attached to suicide. Language matters.